Information Sheet # 44

May 17, 1990


And other Bits of News

Thanks to the 16 Coe faculty and staff who entered the Writing Center's second annual Jargon Jackpot. I wish to extend a special congratulations to the SIX CONTEST WINNERS who submitted correct answers for all fifteen questions. Only two contestants incorrectly answered a multiple choice question (one entrant was certain that a "memorial counselor" identified a "prostitute"). But even with the more difficult "fill-in-the-blank" questions, the following individuals and teams (including an old friend of Queen Elizabeth I) submitted perfect answer sheets.

(1) Betty Rogers (last year's top jargonaut, making her second appearance in the winner's circle);

(2) Robert Mueller (who is a recent Coe graduate, demonstrating that we taught him well in his student years);

(3) Terry Heller (who also submitted a memorandum asserting that "interacting with print" should be defined as "the process of optically or digitally scanning with care alphabetical markings on any surface for purposes such as gathering information, entertainment, or exercise of optical or digital musculature");

(4 & 5) Two Tag Teams:

Chris Mungello & Joanne Pusack

Neal and Chris Woodruff

(6) Sir Walter Raleigh

As advertised in the April 3 Information Sheet, to each winner (or winning team) goes an "instant notoriety," a "beautiful certificate" (simply cut out this column and place it in a beautiful frame) suitable for hanging in a faculty office, and "free chow at an elegant Cedar Rapids dining establishment" (see photocopied facsimile).

[Imagine a Wendy's coupon for a FREE FROSTY here.]

Provided below are the final five examples of doublespeak in April's contest, the "correct" answer, and a few examples of suggested alternatives form various Coe contestants:

Entry Systems: doors [burglary tools; interstate on-ramps; dentistry drills; door bells]

Center for Social Readaptation: prison [elementary classroom; Coe College; hoosegow]

Interacting with Print: reading [fish market wrapping paper]

Socialist Waiting Collectives: people standing in line [Russian Gulag; Welfare Offices; IRS; Russian maternity wards; "Did we cover this in class?]

Post-Consumer Secondary Materials: garbage [Poop (#2); junque available at most garage sales; old exams in fraternity files; the critical, biographical, and bibliographic items necessary for teaching and research]

If you are anxious to discover examples of writing free of any academic jargon, check out the Writing Center display case in the tunnel connecting Peterson Hall and Stuart Hall. I want to thank the following faculty for loaning copies of their publications for this year's showcase:

 Jeff Hoover Terry Heller J. Preston Cole
Floyd Sandford Dean Karns Thomas Moye
Mickey Wu Paula Sanchini  

This display is the third in three years, and I hope this summer to reorganize another collection of faculty publications. For those of you who have had articles or books published since Watergate, please consider providing some samples that we could use for next fall.


This past March during Spring Break I attended the College Composition and Communication Conference in Chicago. This annual get-together has for many years been college writing teachers' most important gathering. Although the conference has plenty of boring, unenlightening presentations (my favorite was "Toward a Social-Epistemic Pedagogy of Composition"), it does offer an excellent opportunity to find out what's brewing in the field's best mental vats. The following excerpts from my conference notes replay some of the "talk" that struck me as interesting and potentially useful for us at Coe. I won't claim all of this stuff is worth reading, but perhaps my notebook captured something worth further thought.

The conference began on Wednesday when I attended a workshop, sponsored by the Writing Programs Administrators, on how colleges can conduct self-studies of their writing programs. Of the four primary speakers, the only one worth the registration fee ($40 out of my pocket) was Edward White, from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He began his discussion of techniques for assessing writing by noting that we have three choices on how a college can assess student writing:

(1) multiple choice tests (he emphasized not using the word "objective"--a judgment made on the test that may or may not be true;

(2) writing tests (essay samples such as Coe's summer writing exam for incoming freshmen);

(3) portfolios (a collection of student writing completed during a course or after one or two years of college work)

According to White, the limitations of multiple choice tests are becoming more and more apparent. Essay testing has dominated the field in the 1980s, but its weaknesses are also becoming clearer because of the problems inherent when faculty or administrators are only examining a student's first-draft efforts. Portfolios now appear as the best direction to go, but colleges are just beginning to experiment in this area. The major unsolved problem is creating a fair system for evaluating student portfolios.

White discussed some of the objections to portfolios, but noted that these are the same objections that were raised fifteen years ago against essay writing exams. Those objections were overcome, and he believes the same will take place with portfolios. White then identified the five places where judgments about writing skills are normally made:

(1) placement into writing courses;

(2) placement out of a composition course (the writing exercise functioning as an equivalency test);

(3) course exit number;

(4) rising junior assessment (the students' acquisition of junior standing dependent on passing a writing test);

(5) exit assessment prior to college graduation.

White noted that the last two are "high stakes," barrier tests where test administrators must be especially diligent in ensuring that all testing is fair. When using these last two testing points, writing program administrators must be especially precise in their definition of exactly what skills a student should be demonstrating.

White discussed the pros and cons of students' self-placement into composition classes, noting the primary problem with self-placement was that it was a reflection of the student's self-confidence rather than writing skills. He also suggested that college be less uneasy with using the term "remedial" for describing some of their writing courses. White noted that "remedial" will always be defined by the level of a particular institution; what may be remedial at an Ivy League school may not be the case as a state community college. The remedial student is simply the student who cannot perform the way you want a particular group of students to perform.

In response to a question from the audience, White stressed that faculty needed to consider multiple purposes for portfolios:

(1) to bring consensus & mutual understanding to faculty--general agreement on what is going on in all classes;

(2) to evaluate programs;

(3) to evaluate specific students.

It is also important in dealing with faculty fears to emphasize the following aspects of portfolios:

(1) they should never be used for judging specific faculty;

(2) portfolios can effectively be used to help validate good teaching and good assignments;

(3) they represent a significant opportunity for faculty to work together;

(4) portfolios are a means for the confirmation of fair standards; they enable the faculty to gain a fair and honest perspective on students' work.

White pointed out that in the next few years one of the hot research interests will be in studying how faculty respond to portfolios and how that experience plays itself out.

Following several other presentations, the workshop discussion returned to the issue of portfolios. An English professor from Eckerd College in Florida explained how they have used portfolios with students in their freshman seminar (like Coe, their writing instruction for freshman is handled by faculty in their version of a freshman "core course"). They use a system where faculty assist each other in helping to score portfolios from all sections. For students receiving an evaluation of "inadequate" on their portfolio (a judgment made by a minimum of three readers), the students are then required to take a writing course the following term that guides them in developing the writing skills needed for producing a "competent" portfolio. [As it has since turned out, Coe's Core Course Committee has adopted a similar experimental program for using portfolios in next fall's WOK sections.]

He commented that while an essay exam provides a snapshot of the student's writing skills, portfolios provide a motion picture. It is still incomplete but much richer in information and detail that the single writing sample. In their work with portfolios, they have encountered three major problems:

(1) Bulk; you are handling a huge amount of stuff.

(2) Responsibilities: who is responsible for turning in papers (teacher of students?); who is responsible for organizing flow of portfolios?

(3) How do the portfolios look? Do you want papers to have any comments from instructors?

Although the portfolios involved extra work, he stressed that their faculty has been quite positive about their experience with portfolios. Most faculty viewed it as a system of support for instructors who wished to maintain consistent, fair standards.

On Thursday, the most interesting session I attended was one conducted by Elaine Maimon (at one time director of a very successful writing-across-the-curriculum program at Beaver College in Pennsylvania) and Toby Fulwiler (director of the writing-across-the-curriculum program at the University of Vermont.) Maimon began her talk by playing the image of a writing teacher as a choreographer for students learning to dance. In contrast to this affirmative vision of teaching, she attacked proponents of academic discourse who have been supporting a "false dichotomy" between private and public voices, between the personal voice and the academic discourse. We need to find ways to help our students transcend that kind of division.

Maimon categorized much of academic writing as a kind of adversarial scholarship: "search and destroy" scholarship. The purpose of doing research becomes trying to write a paper that supercedes all previous papers on that subject. In contrast to that ideal, scholarship should be nurtured by a tradition that emphasizes cooperation and collaboration. Scholarship should be communal, searching for connections.

Fulwiler's remarks focused on the terms important to WAC. As he recommended in previous talks I have heard him give, his major emphasis was on writing programs developing curricula that are really "language-learning-across-the-curriculum." The academic world is full of separate disciplines anxious to protect specialized content with specialized language. An ideal writing program would enable students to learn how to negotiate through those different disciplines while also engaging those students in ways that they can become participants in the creation of knowledge.

Later on Thursday I attended a session on how tutoring should work in writing centers. The principal speaker was Muriel Harris, director of the writing center at Purdue. Harris discussed how students describe their own writing, engaging in "litanies of confession"--students associating their own failures with the problems in their writing. Their perception of their own writing resembles their definition of themselves. Always they are saying what they can't do, seeing writing as based on a "grammar or error"--a "grammar of defeat." They approach the improvement in their writing as an acquisition of correctness, based on a dichotomy of right and wrong. They don't see composing as a long, ongoing process of maturation. If students go through tutorials and then you ask them about their composing process, they consistently will not mention the tutorial, the talking. Students don't connect what they actually do with their picture of what writing is. Harris concluded by arguing that we must help students see that writing in the real word is a collaborative effort. We need to be more assertive in making it clear to students why the writing process can most usefully be seen as a social process.

Harris offered several suggestions for helping students move beyond their conception of writing as a "grammar of error":

(1) Help students to gain a distance between themselves and their writing. Writing is a process of trial and error--and some writing is easier than other. Teachers need to give personal experiences, sharing with students their own successes and failures. And student's self-concept can't hinge on every piece.

(2) Don't allow students to browbeat themselves. Only when we stop the flow of self-castigation can we begin to collaborate and make some progress.

(3) Reader-predication: help writers to see their writing from a reader's point of view. Harris demonstrated one practical way to do this is by having the reader cover up an essay and proceed through it sentence by sentence. After each sentence, the reader should stop and predict where the paper is going. What has been set up? Does the paper fulfill those predictions? The writer can watch the reader making meaning out of text. Does the text fulfill the reader's expectations?

The last session I attended on Thursday was entitled "Collaborative Planning and the Play of Strategic Knowledge" presented by Linda Flower, Joseph Petraglia, and Lorraine Higgins from the Center for the Study of Writing at Carnegie Mellon University. They reported on the study of 22 freshmen writers who were asked to use collaboration in the planning stages of their writing. This Collaborative Planning is a loosely structured form of collaboration designed to help writers:

--explore and develop their own ideas;

--monitor plans, moving form knowledge-driven to constructive planning;

--reflect on their own thinking process.

The ultimate goal is for students to be concerned with organized, constructive rhetorical planning. In Collaborative Planning, two students are working together. One student serves as the supporter, responsible for reminding the writer to thin about such issues as audience, purpose, and text conventions when working on a paper. Another goal of Collaborative Planning is getting writers to collaborate on a plan before doing the first draft, after which it is more difficult to convince students to make major changes.

How did students interpret and negotiate the faculty's writing assignments in this study? Information was obtained by asking students to tape record the conversations students held with each other as they were planning their papers. The recordings revealed what we would expect: students often did the activities without being aware of the purpose. Students often misunderstood what they were supposed to be doing in an assignment. Many students went through collaboration without any self-reflection; however, the study did find a positive correlation between the quality of writing and amount of reflection.

The high point of the session on Friday was a two-hour panel discussion on the subject of the "New Rhetorics." The following summaries try to provide some idea about the future directions of composition instruction as seen by some of the most influential writers and teachers in the field.

James Berlin (Purdue University) began by discussing how adopting a rhetoric always means adopting an ideological position; all rhetorics authorize who can and can't talk and how they talk. No rhetoric can give voice to all--so there will always be conflict between rhetorics. Rhetoric creates meanings and means of interpretation.

Rhetorics are provisionary rules of order and disorder. Rhetorics are made to be broken, to be reformed. We must recreate who creates, what creations can enter this collusion, what discourse can be voiced. We need new rhetorics, not a new rhetoric. We need new rhetorics that acknowledge their own rhetoricity, their own compliance in the catalogs of cruelties. We have had rhetorics that denied the gendered, the ungendered, the sexual, the homosexual, the bisexual, the nonsexual, the androgynous; that denied the rich, the poor, the professional, the nonprofessional; that denied the foreign, the alien, the different, the same, the other. We want rhetorics that negate their own negations and affirmations, affirm their affirmations and negotiations. We need rhetorics that give us new voices, new listeners, new worlds, new languages. A way of rhetoric is always a way of denying rhetoric.

The next speaker was Ann E. Berthoff (Vassar College). She argued (her style throughout the session was unequivocally argumentative) that no new rhetoric will make any difference to the way we teach and design our courses until we rid ourselves of the positivist linguistics which has underwritten composition and rhetoric for at least forty years. We might even be emboldened to give up the absurd practice of assigning topics and correcting the thoughtless writing we get in response. Unless and until out students' minds are engaged so that they can invent their own topics in the course of reclaiming their imaginations, nothing much will happen. If we say that rhetoric is a study of how words work and that if begins with a study of misunderstanding and its remedies, how would that change the way we teach the composing process? Berthoff insisted that writing and composition must not be thought of as papers to be graded, but rather as a way to teach students how to think, to make meaning by using language.

Jim Corder (Texas Christian University) read briefly from a short prepared statement, claiming that "as we work in and for the discipline we have chosen, we should also work and pray to be released from our discipline: one is never a rhetorician; one never owns the last rhetorical system; rhetoric, like life, is provisional, and its best visions and constructions are in the best tradition of jack-leg carpentry--one always begins in error and ends in inadequacy." To this Corder commented, "I find no woe in this."

Corder told the audience that we won't capture life in a discipline, nor can we do with any single rhetoric. Rhetorics are provisional "ways of taking the world"--and these blessed ways are non-exclusionary. Its lessons are to emphasize openness, invention. But writing demands closure. We must be both open and seeking closure. This is the "cycling processes of rhetoric."

J.J. Murphy, a historian of rhetoric from I don't remember where, discussed how the new rhetorics are casting themselves as carpenters when there are just painters--they are putting new paint on old buildings. We should be looking for what is "core" rather than what is different. What so all these different rhetorics have in common?

A question from the audience was raised about why composition in the United States split from rhetoric in the late 19th century. Berlin suggested it was a political issue/decision: the oral (the world of rhetoric) was the language of the masses, the demographic language; writing was to be the language of the educated classes, a privileged class. Colleges, following Harvard, opted to go with the privileged groups.

Later on Friday, in a very small and crowded room in the Palmer House, I attended a session that dealt with a book to be published next year entitled Twelve Readers Reading. This book will focus on a group of 12 distinguished composition instructors who volunteered to provide written responses to a common set of papers. The discussion included two of the teachers participating in the study. Edward White (the same Edward White mentioned earlier) and Patricia Stock from Syracuse University.

The presentation began by looking at a student paper that White had read and critiqued. Nearly all of his responses focused on the text, particularly the writer's style and word choice. In contrast Stock's responses to the same paper dealt primarily with context. Her responses were very personal, intimate, almost sensual. The purpose of her comments occasionally sounded like a kind of parenting, attempting to support and nurture the student.

White commented that it was curious that as teachers, we focus on products but we are trying to get to the process. To reach this process, however, we must know the student so we know whom we are working with. The responder must be both personal (to establish our humanity) and impersonal so that the comments have a generalized applicability.

Stock's comments focused on the issue of how readers respond to text and context. What do we decide to point to? If we are going to point and evaluate, we must construct contexts. And that is done through conversation. The talk around the text, the circumstantial life of the student, enables the teacher to know how to help the students as they actualize their lives. Context doesn't pre-exist--it is created by the teacher to know how to help the student. [Important to realize that when we are actually evaluating a paper, we are evaluating the context, those experiences and feelings that surround the works we see on the page.] The teacher and student meet in the place "in between"--a dialectic, semantic conversational space between student and teacher. The task of the teacher is to find ways to help the student and teacher collaborate in bridging these spaces. The teacher is only one reader of a text but the teacher is a "privileged reader."

One last presentation at the conference I would like to close with was given by Donald Murray, a retired professor from the University of New Hampshire, talking about autobiographies. Murray suggested that we view all writing as autobiography (and all reading is autobiographical); thinking style and language usage is autobiography. Our first 20 years is experience; all the rest is observation. We need to respect that territory owned by our students.

Writers shape themselves through their language. We can most profitably view writing through their language. As with oil painting, it is a process of putting one layer over another layer, allowing the old version to suggest what to do next, where to go. Murray stated that we need to allow students to write and rewrite on a few subjects that obsess them rather than trying to get them to write on many different subjects. In effect we need to allow each student to use college as an opportunity for writing an autobiography. To do this well, students must write from authority and abundance. This can only be done if students learn how to tie together their personal concerns and background with their academic world.

Marginalia. One of the curious aspects of a conference is the way certain phrases or motifs begin to reappear in more than one session. Listed below are some sentences that heard two or more speakers use during the conference.

"Writing must be at the ‘intellectual center' of the student's first experience in the college."

"An expert is someone more than 50 miles away."

"We always set ourselves up to be in the same situation."

"There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two group and those who don't."

"Praise can be as destructive as criticism."

"Teachers are privileged readers."

Bob Marrs

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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.